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Chitose Suzuki, Associated Press
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has repeatedly referenced Ronald Reagan in speeches over the past two weeks.

The day after the midterm elections, Gov. Mitt Romney, reflecting on the GOP's punishing losses, issued a clarion call to conservatives: "We must return to the common-sense Reagan Republican ideals."

Three days later, at a State House Veterans Day ceremony, Romney invoked the former president again, saying, "As Ronald Reagan once said, 'I have seen four wars during my lifetime and none of them began because America was too strong."'

And then last Friday, asked by a Fox News interviewer whether he was running for president, Romney said he was giving it some serious thought, because the stakes were so high. "We're going to have to make sure that we have the kind of Reagan optimism that America's looking for," he said.

Romney's repeated references to the nation's 40th president in two weeks illustrate how the governor, as he builds toward a 2008 presidential bid, is increasingly trying to cast himself in the Reagan mold — as a patriotic, small-government conservative from outside the Beltway who's bent on repelling taxes, moral relativism, and foreign threats.

Like many Republicans, Romney has long described Reagan as one of his heroes, but as the governor's White House hopes have gained steam, his admiration has turned to emulation: Romney seems to be channeling the former president's conservative convictions, his hopeful message, and even his witty, folksy style of connecting with voters from South Carolina to Southern California.

There are many similarities between the two: Reagan and Romney portrayed themselves as bulwarks against the perils of liberalism in their home states — Reagan in California, Romney in Massachusetts. Both have benefited from their Hollywood looks. Both have had experience in working with Democratic legislatures.

"Reagan was able to run against Washington, including people in his own party in Washington, by talking about what he achieved as governor and saying he would take those ideas to Washington," said Republican strategist Charlie Black, who was a senior Reagan adviser. "Romney can do the same thing."

Like other potential GOP candidates, Romney is also negotiating a delicate relationship with the legacy of President Bush, who is respected by Republicans for his tough tactics in fighting terrorism but continues to be plagued by low job-approval ratings. Reagan's legacy, by contrast, is seen by Republicans as largely unassailable.

While Republican presidential hopefuls routinely try to claim the mantle of Reagan conservatism, Black said, Romney can make a good case, in large part because of his charisma and his ability to give a stirring speech. Black said he hears observers of the 2008 race describe Romney as "Reaganesque."

Romney's message on the stump often carries echoes of Reagan, who died in 2004.

Consider the acceptance speech Reagan gave in July 1980 after he won the Republican nomination for president.

"Never before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence," Reagan said, warning that the United States was spending beyond its means, facing unprecedented danger from Soviet communism, and maintaining an unhealthy dependence on foreign oil.

And yet, Reagan voiced optimism: "There are no words to express the extraordinary strength and character of this breed of people we call Americans."

Compare those remarks to Romney's in July of this year, at a GOP luncheon in Ames, Iowa.

"We're under attack from jihadists, we're spending way too much money — way more money than we're taking in — (and) we're using way too much oil," Romney said, asserting that the American people were up to the test. "We face some real challenges ... but we will rise to the occasion, as we always do."

He added, "I love America and what it stands for. I will fight for it, as you will."

Romney's evolution on abortion mirrors Reagan's, too: Like Reagan, Romney once expressed support for abortion rights but became solidly anti-abortion as the presidential campaign neared.

And Romney has had help from a California humorist, Doug Gamble, who once wrote laugh lines for Reagan.

Jared Young, a spokesman for Romney's political action committee, the Commonwealth PAC, said Reagan is a worthy model. "He is a very optimistic leader, much like President Reagan was," he said.

Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist who ran Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign, said that while he wouldn't necessarily call Romney an heir to Reagan, he did see a connection.

"He shares the same principles," Rollins said. "And Reagan was about three things when he ran ... lower taxes, less government, and national defense."

But some critics of Romney's record as governor say his tenure does not reflect a commitment to lower taxes and less government. They argue that Romney's administration - by raising many state fees, raising corporate taxes by closing loopholes, and implementing a new comprehensive healthcare program — has actually done the opposite.

Romney's views on national defense are less well known, and some political observers say his lack of foreign policy experience could be a liability, especially if the war in Iraq continues to dominate the headlines.

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And Romney is hardly the only candidate to invoke Reagan in looking toward 2008. US Senator John McCain of Arizona, who, along with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, could prove to be Romney's chief rival, gave two major speeches in Washington last week laced with references to the late president. In fact, McCain aides said they hoped the speeches would be reminiscent of an address Reagan delivered in the political vacuum after Republicans lost the White House in 1976.

But McCain, after bucking the party's right wing on immigration, taxes, and, most recently, the treatment of terrorism suspects, has not been a favorite of conservatives. So Romney, in an effort to position himself as the McCain alternative, has spent much of the past year trying to draw those voters to him.


E-mail: shelman@globe.com.